Historical Jesuit treasures relived through exhibition

June 18, 2021

Two spectacular exhibitions have, after pandemic delays, finally opened in London. Both celebrating big anniversaries, one is a dazzling re-creation of the opulence of the Tudor court, the other a brutal gore-fest. Jan Graffius and Hatty Magill explain how both exhibitions have been made possible by important Jesuit loans.

Field of Cloth of Gold

The new exhibition at Hampton Court Palace runs until 5 September. Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King commemorates the 500th anniversary of the fabulous political event known as the Field of Cloth of Gold. This eighteen-day meeting in 1520 between Henry VIII and François I was unparalleled in its lavish demonstration of wealth and power. Inside huge temporary palaces, under tents made of luxurious cloth of gold or on the specially constructed tiltyard, the two competitive kings and their courtiers jousted and wrestled, hosted great banquets and exchanged expensive gifts. Wine flowed from the fountains and a dragon’ flew above the festivities.

Held in the very rooms of Hampton Court Palace that were used by Cardinal Wolsey, who was the brainchild of the Field of Cloth of Gold, the exhibition combines significant artefacts from the original event with dazzling pieces from Henry’s Tudor court and François’ Valois court.

The exhibition features the cardinal’s Book of Hours, a beautifully illuminated manuscript gifted to Wolsey by a fellow cardinal and now belonging to Stonyhurst College. But perhaps the star exhibit is the unique Henry VII cope, which belongs to the British Jesuit Province. This garment is the sole survivor from a set of 29 extremely prestigious cloth of gold and red silk damask velvet copes commissioned by Henry VII for Westminster Abbey in the late 15th century. The complete set was borrowed by Henry VIII in 1520 to take to the royal summit. By 1608, only eleven were still in the Abbey, and these were burned in 1643.

This cope, which can be seen on the cover of this issue, is the first recorded illustration of the Jesuits’ long history as ‘keepers of memory’ of British Catholic material and spiritual culture. Its presence at the English Jesuit college of St Omers in Flanders was first mentioned in October 1609, and it had arrived at the college via the recusant Cotton family, who were supporters of Saints Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell.

‘Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King’ at Hampton Court Palace

Murder in the Cathedral

A very different exhibition has synchronously opened at the British Museum and runs until 22 August. Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint examines the life, murder and spiritual and political influence of the hugely famous 12th century archbishop and martyr, who eventually became a ‘traitor’ in the eyes of Henry VIII more than 350 years later.

On 29 December 1170, Becket was assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights with close ties to King Henry II, an act that left medieval Europe reeling. Becket was initially a close friend of Henry, but the two men became engaged in a bitter dispute that culminated in the former’s violent and public death.

Marking the 850th anniversary of Becket’s brutal murder, the exhibition features the rare, possibly unique, relic of Becket’s skull, which is owned by the British Jesuit Province and held at Stonyhurst College. The relic has been in Jesuit ownership since the late 16th century, only some fifty years after the destruction of Becket’s shrine at Canterbury at the orders of Henry VIII. Becket was one of the most prominent saints in Christendom in the medieval period and his fall from grace was one of the biggest scandals of its day, reverberating throughout Europe and beyond.

Becket’s crime was to have died defending papal supremacy over English royal authority. For Henry VIII, Becket’s memory had to be wiped out. Laws were passed forbidding the mention of his name and banning his image. Libraries were scoured by royal officials who scraped or inked over all mentions of Becket in books and manuscripts. Paintings, frescoes, statues and vestments were destroyed, whitewashed, unpicked. The final indignity was the destruction of his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral.

Accounts differ as to the fate of the bones, but a small piece of Becket’s skull was rescued in 1540 when his shrine was being dismantled and his bones removed. This piece of cranium has a provenance dating back to 1593, and was recorded by the English Jesuit missionary, John Gerard: ‘I was given a silver head of St Thomas of Canterbury, and his mitre studded with precious stones. The head is small and of no great value in itself, but it is quite a treasure because it contains a piece of the saint’s skull. It is the breadth of a double gold crown and it is thought to be the piece that was chipped off when he was so wickedly slain.‘

Like the Henry VII cope, this piece of Becket’s skull was smuggled across the Channel to safety at St Omers. In 1666 it was remounted into a beautiful silver-gilt brooch inscribed: ‘EX CRANIO ST THOMAE CANTUARENSIS’, which fastened to the front of a flamboyant silver statue of Becket, also on display.

Stonyhurst College has also lent a rare book of saints’ days in which the feast of Thomas Becket has been defaced and scored through, in accordance with Henry VIII’s reforms.

Other extraordinary exhibits include the Province’s unique gold and enamel reliquary, believed to have been designed by Hans Holbein, and a crucifix from the Stonyhurst collection. Both of these stunningly beautiful artefacts belonged to St Thomas More, whose memory was linked to that of his namesake, Thomas Becket, recollecting two saints who defied royalty for the sake of conscience.

‘Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint’ at the British Museum

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